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A Roadmap for a Renewable Energy Partnership

Brad CashawPartnerships can greatly accelerate the pace at which sustainability innovations are incorporated into the supply chain. Often, these collaborations are created precisely to tackle a sustainability challenge for which there are no known solutions. Partnerships that successfully break new ground tend to follow a roadmap that ensures the benefits of collaboration go well beyond sustainability and the bottom line.

In working with the University of Iowa, Quaker Foods and Snacks has gained valuable insights into how to create and manage a partnership in the area of renewable energy. The collaboration has been instrumental in pioneering biomass renewable energy by converting oat hulls that result from the manufacturing process into energy that powers the university. Today, the oat hulls fuel approximately 14 percent of the school’s total energy requirements. According to the University of Iowa this is equivalent to avoiding the carbon dioxide emissions of nearly 1,200 passenger vehicles per year, or is the equivalent amount of electricity needed to power nearly 900 average homes.

Each year, Quaker mills and generates a significant amount of oat hulls – the outer “shell” of the oat grain” — as part of its cereal production process. In 2001, the company approached the university to explore ways to find productive uses for this “waste” bi-product as biomass fuel. Converting waste into a renewable energy source, seemed like a good idea – but the process for this had not yet been developed.

The Quaker – University of Iowa partnership developed through several distinct phases which hold lessons for public-private collaborations focused on creating a breakthrough solutions.

Phase I: Project Charter, Feasibility, Resource Assessment

  • Review the economic and environmental attributes of the proposed project for both parties. As the project evolved, both partners realized they were pioneers in the field. Ferman Milster, associate director of utilities and energy management at University of Iowa, noted “It was one challenge after another, as far as we could determine, it is unique to the U.S., so it was a continuous learning curve as we invented the process. Our staff excelled at rising to the occasion.” Conducting independent preliminary assessments of the project helps each team consider the potential costs and benefits early on.
  • Use trials to their fullest. The project included a series of biomass “burn trials” to understand various technical aspects of the project including: the biomass fuel specifications, storage and transfer system requirements, and emissions. Trials helped to define the overall scope of the project, leveraged subject matter experts between the two partners, and provided clear direction on cost sharing boundaries and timelines. Building in time, and budget, for pilot testing is critical to honing the scope of a project and clearing obstacles early on.
  • Seek external guidance for the latest expertise. Internal and external experts from the university and the company contributed insight on the latest-applications of technologies, materials, project and operational management and environmental criteria. Involving these experts helped supplement the expertise of the in-house team and increased the overall efficiency of the project.

Phase II: Design, Procure, Build

  • Combine relative areas of expertise to seek non-custom solutions. The design team capitalized on simplicity and cost effectiveness by using non-custom components wherever possible. By combining expertise in engineering, design and power plant management, the team created an innovative fuel injection and material unloading system. Borrowing ready-made solutions from other disciplines can help to greatly reduce the cost of scaling up the project later on.
  • Leverage purchasing powers and use local contractors with a proven track record with both parties. Partners combined networks of vendors to minimize capital costs, maximize services and compress overall delivery timelines. Working with established and proven vendor helped to speed the implementation process and build local knowledge that furthered continual innovation.

Phase III: Test, Verify and Share Information

  • Test the project against established benchmarks. The oat hull project was commissioned through a series of comprehensive environmental tests. These tests helped to create modeling tools and provided further confirmation that the energy created from oat hulls can dramatically reduce air pollutants of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particular matter, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds. Burning oat hulls allows the university to use 20 percent less coal and greenhouse gas emissions have also been substantially reduced. Gathering proof points, validated by external parties, is vital to internal learning and for creating a model for others.
  • Involve and inform stakeholders. Along the way, the project engaged public officials, students and the academic community, corporate partners and the local community. Stakeholder engagement was vital to creating broad-based support for the project and airing any concerns early. The early involvement from public officials and governing bodies also helped ensure that projects moved efficiently from conception through completion.
  • Demonstrate long-term commitment. Once the University of Iowa received its official permit for burning oat hulls, Quaker was able to sign an extended purchase contract for supplying the material. Alignment early on towards a long-term commitment provides stability for the project to develop and evolve.
  • Share insight. The partnership continues to examine lessons learned and to share these with the broader university community and peer organizations. A series of class lectures and community presentations have been offered to describe how the project can serve as a model of environmental stewardship.

Collaboration that is committed to continually defining and clarifying mutually beneficial objectives results in a successful partnership. For those partnerships focused on sustainability innovation – the benefits are multiple. The project continues to help the University of Iowa manage their energy budget. So far, the project has helped the university save $1 million and the EPA recently recognized the school among the 2009 Top 20 list of on-site green power users. The project has also benefitted Quaker in establishing a sustainable process for disposing of oat hulls and finding innovative ways to utilize the oat beyond its traditional purpose.

Brad Cashaw is Vice President of Quaker Foods and Snack’s Supply Chain and Sustainability efforts. Quaker is a division of PepsiCo.

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